Recently, there has been much talk and animated discussion on South African social media about the seemingly ubiquitous and embedded violence within our society. Important links between the violence of South African history and the kind of violence we witness in crime in general and the brutality/misogyny of gender relations in this country, have been made. Essentially, we are a country with a deadly brutal history, spanning back 300+ years in our history. Colonialism is violent. It is an erasure of the identity of another; it is dispossession of not just the habitat but the self, the beliefs, and the traditions. It is the denial of the worth and value of an ‘other’. Quite apart from any physically violent dispossession and denial of a people, it destroys the psyche, on a psychological level, so deeply that the extent of such denigration is embedded in the bones and marrow of its victims, and passed down the generations. When you add to that, the sheer viciousness of apartheid, you get a state of affairs ripe for the breeding of the kinds of darkness, evil and repugnance we see now. Hurt people, hurt people. And the cycle does not stop unless and until we heal. The pertinent question then is “How?” How do we heal from the centuries’ long malevolence inflicted against the black man by his oppressor? How do we heal and still co-exist in a “new” society with the descendants of our oppressors? That is a question that must be answered…collectively. But not now. For now, I want to talk about how this violence that is ingrained in us, transfers to our children through what we call discipline.
To be fair, not all discipline is violence. Physical discipline, in its biblical nature (if we derive this form of discipline from the Good Book), is meant to be instructive, non-emotional and corrective. Well, this is my interpretation. But like with a lot of things that are biblical and are acted upon by humans, the manner in which physical discipline is supposed to be meted out, becomes distorted. We BEAT our children at the height of our emotions, we take out our mental and emotional frustrations on them, and we avenge our own childhood horrors through physically ‘disciplining’ them. When I say we, I also mean me…
In this year, I have done a lot of purposeful introspection on why I hit my child. To be brutally honest, it never sat well with me when I laid my hands on him. There was an excessive use of force, and a kind which did not ever match the transgression. And each time I had been particularly heavy-handed, I would go into my room and cry bitterly, be remorseful and cry out to God. I would ask Him to forgive me, and I would acknowledge that there was something sinister within me, driving this kind of extreme harshness. And I needed God to help me break it, stop it, address it and let it go. It wasn’t just that I was a strict mother – no. I was a cruel mother ruling with an iron fist. In the moment, I hardly ever made room for acknowledging and accepting in my mind that a child is just that – immature, reckless, clumsy, unknowing, and testy. I was brutalizing my child for his innocence, an innocence that was completely natural, and not any form of disobedience, but literally just what the definition of a child is. And inasmuch as it did “work”, I couldn’t help but think of what it was doing to him. I knew that all I was doing was bending him to my expectations of behaving through physical pain and fear. But I was also depositing a dangerous seed of anger and violence in him that would rear its head when he was no longer my charge and was living an independent adult life. I just knew this truth and couldn’t run from it, no matter how I justified my physically ‘disciplining’ him.
When the conversation around how violent we are as a society erupted on social media, I couldn’t help but believe the conjecture that a lot of us are carrying around a lot of hurt and anger in our bones that is inherited and hereditary, through the oppression of our ancestors, but that is also immediate because our parents used to beat us. And they beat us in much the same way I describe above: at the height of their emotions, taking out their mental and emotional frustrations on us, and unwittingly avenging their own childhood horrors through the manner in which physically disciplined us, helpless children. Because the reason it is easier to hit (and be excessive with) a child is because they have less power than us (agency) and one could pretty much say they’re helpless. And it is such an imbalance of power that facilitates abuse. We neutralize or dominate those that are less powerful than us, be it physically, emotionally or psychologically. And amongst black people, there is a particular pride in “beating” your children. It’s like we feel that it validates and certifies us as good parents. The harsher or more cruel and unusual the punishment or beating is, the better parents we are. Read social media, here (South Africa), amongst other African communities and in the US. It’s wild. And until you begin to look at it critically, you laugh at the manner in which we joke about our suffering at the hands of our parents, take It as a given (expected even), and a true indication of good and proper parenting.
But is it though? Is it really? Because we may say “we turned out fine”, but did we really? I may not have the proclivity to go off and kill someone, but I have such an impatient nature – almost unreasonable. When I get angry, I definitely and literally want to physically hurt someone and I can feel (and know) that my propensity to anger is unhealthy. I do not want to parent blame here, but here are some facts: my mother beat me, sometimes out of proportion; I have a father who was abusive and also had/has anger issues, and then there are all the psycho-social considerations of the bloodline of my people, the black man. Yeah, I am the perfect candidate to be a danger to society, and even murderous. And I am not being extra here. Because if you think about it, the people that have committed the kinds of atrocities we are now focusing on in South African society, a majority of them probably have histories very much like mine. Perhaps it is just that I am a different person in that I was not harmed to the extent of having murderous tendencies; but I have abusive tendencies. I must admit this. And if my desire is to heal myself, as I have set out to do for years since having a child, I must start off by calling a thing a thing. I have been an abusive parent. So what risk am I running then in terms of inflicting that kind of “discipline” on my son, a male? I am literally running the risk of creating a monster, a rapist, a murderer. So, no, we did NOT turn out fine. And we don’t know that we are not fine unless we do the introspective work. Soooo many people just go about life mindlessly. And I guess I could have too. Because, looking back, I can’t say that there was anything specifically traumatic that would cause me to harbor so much anger. I was not physically or mentally abused; I did not have a “rough” upbringing and I was fortunate to come from a moderately to do home. So what the fuss?
The fuss is that even though there isn’t one jarring or terribly traumatic thing that happened to me, there are a series of small transgressions or occurrences that happened that embedded the anger. Apart from the anger that is of my bloodline and that which is within the psyche of black people, I perhaps did experience trauma. Being beaten in excess of what my misdemeanors warranted; being the object of a parent releasing their own emotional frustrations, even if it only happened once in a while (You know an excessive beating when you receive one. It is no longer about you but about the other person’s demons); and perhaps even other things that happened socially speaking, among friends – perhaps things that bruised my ego and planted a seed of anger that took root because the issue was never resolved, even internally by me. Perhaps I was not yet mentally equipped to do so. So anger sprouted. Truthfully speaking, there are a number of things that if we picked my history with a fine tooth comb, we could identify as adding to or building latent anger within me. And because I have agency and am an adult, and I want to be “normal”, it is imperative that I do the work. I can’t blame my mom…I know she did the best she could and she was no monster. I can’t blame the history of my people or my bloodline – it is what it is. The responsibility is mine to do better. For myself, my child and future generations. If I live mindfully, introspectively and engage in a great deal of self-reflexivity, I will know where my faultlines lie, what my afflictions are and how I correct and heal them. But how many of us live in this state? And so how many of us are going to unconsciously perpetuate things we see in society and that we know are wrong, but seem to think are someone else’s problem? Many of us. I wonder what measures can be taken in parenting to also create self-aware children? So that the self-aware are not just a select few, or those whose personalities incline them to be deep thinkers or very in touch with their inner selves. Proposals/suggestions anyone?
I have to say that I am IMMENSELY grateful that my prayers have been heard, because in this year, I have managed to consciously discipline my son. Not only did I pray to be a better parent, I prayed, and have beeeeeen praying for a number of years, for God to help me deal with my anger. I know that hurt people, hurt people. So it’s not just about adopting better parenting strategies but rather healing from my own trauma. This is work in progress. But I have not beat my child since making the decision to talk rather than hit. I say beat as opposed to hit. Because frankly speaking, I used to beat him – with all that pent up emotional anger. I have instead (once) used a stick with him for blatant disobedience. And for the first time, I was calm, non-emotional and the strikes on his hand matched the transgression. Because there is a difference between hitting your child with a hand, an object and a stick. Objects, much like a hand, tend to carry a different meaning, especially if you’re going to pelt someone all over their body or throw things at them. Perhaps the Bible says “rod” for a reason. I leave it up to personal conviction about whether you discipline with a stick (I prefer on the hand) or not at all, because you choose rather to talk to a child or use a privilege revoking system. They all work. And if you are going to discipline with a stick, please be honest with yourself – if you are broken, have latent trauma or tend to be excessively angry with a child’s disobedience, please rather not do it. Rather choose another form of discipline. Take it from someone that carries a deep weight of remorse for the harm they have already inflicted on their child in the name of discipline.
And yes, one may say that it is easier to talk to a 10 year old vs a 2 year old. Sure. But only if you are engaged in lazy and sub-conscious parenting. Really, it’s that we are lazy to think of other ways of disciplining. And yes, a 2 year old WILL TIRE you OUT. And there’s usually not much reasoning with them, but in hindsight, I believe the key is persistence and consistency. You will get the same results as with spanking, just better I believe. I believe these other ways lay down the foundation in our kids for adopting and working with better conflict resolution strategies in their adult lives. They will talk, seek consensus, buy-in and negotiate, because it is how we modeled conflict resolution. They will not just beat someone into submission. Healthy, sustainable and lasting consensus does not work that way. So let us refrain from lazy and harmful parenting, whereby we rather rule by fear and force obedience, because “talking to a 2 year old is taxing”. Better that for your baby and not harming them and giving them the gift of no anger issues and an aversion to violence. Because even if you beat them, it may not necessarily be that the child understands why something is wrong then, they’re just afraid of the switch and your violence. And the chances (backed up by actual research) are that they will be just like you: abusive and violent. And we then create children who do not develop critical thinking abilities until muuuuch later in life. We do them a disservice. You want a child that can challenge you even as a child, showing that you have raised them in such a manner that their brain is actually working.
My son challenges me a lot. Perhaps that is why sometimes it was easier to beat him. Nowadays, I allow him to challenge me. And when all I can say is “Because I said so”, I know I have to up my game in terms of first understanding for myself why I do not want him to do something, and then also in terms of HOW I explain it so that he, as a 10 year old, gets it. That’s MY JOB. And despite my shortcomings as a parent where discipline is concerned, I am thankful that he has not become another person, changed by beatings. He is himself. And to HIS credit (not mine), he is an extremely well-behaved child. Extremely. This is the grace of God in that He gave me a sweet child. He may be somewhat well-behaved because I do discipline and parent, so there’s no disrespect of adults, rules and authority, but he is by nature, a well-behaved child anyway. So I KNOW and KNEW even all those years ago that really, I was wilding. And I thank God that he is not afraid of questioning adults, despite how heavy-handed beatings could have changed him. Good for him.
Coincidentally, this very important conversation comes about at the same time as the South African Constitutional Court ruling that makes hitting your child illegal. I say “YAY!” This country needs it. Given the current state of affairs, it is clear that we cannot leave this issue to the discretion of parents. There is waaaay too much brokenness and lack of self-awareness going on amongst us. Let us heal, introspect and hopefully, break the cycle. It’s unfortunately not enough that there are a handful of parents that are using the rod in the right way. Rather the State disallow it for all parents. It can be revised several generations later if need be.
So as a former advocate of hitting children, I have to say that I have revised my stance, and it took me being an abusive parent and BEING AWARE of it, to do so. Otherwise, I’d probably still be a believer because I *believe* it turned out well for me and so many others. But we know now that that isn’t necessarily the case. We are deeply traumatized. Physical discipline was something that I was such a big proponent of. And it is interesting to see in myself how the trajectory of change occurred: initially very slow, and then suddenly accelerated in just this year. I now hold a completely different view about “spanking”, and I have to say that I am glad I do, for the sake of my son. It is also comforting to know that we as people, can fundamentally change ourselves, our convictions, our beliefs and our viewpoints. There is hope yet for humanity. I remember, many, many years ago, even before I was a parent, watching an Oprah segment in which they were discussing just how wrong hitting children was. I was, quite frankly, taken aback. To me, it sounded so “unAfrican”, so irresponsible of parents to not do, and so “White”. It literally “sounded about White”. But I get it now. Now that I am a parent, and one that was running the risk of ruining her own child, I totally get it. And some things, you don’t get until you’re a perpetrator, not just a victim. Well, that is if you have a fully developed and morally upright conscience. When you know better, you do better.
So in correcting my mistakes, I intend to talk to my son about my remorse, my shortcomings as a parent and to ask for his forgiveness for my excessiveness. Eeeeek! Trepidatious because parents NEVER apologise to kids, right? Wrong. Kids deserve apologies too. And I am even prepared to seek therapy for my child, because inasmuch as he’s seemingly good now and is very well-behaved, things have happened and they lie deep within him, and they may rear their head one day in ugly ways. I do not want to be the root cause of it. Someone that was supposed to love, nurture and mold him into a good human being.
I pray and hope parents and future parents will do better and do right by their children. Their future and the people they become literally depend on you as their warden for those first 18-25 years. Many of the social ills we are faced with find their root cause in nucleus family and they can also be fixed there. Let us not underestimate our responsibility or outsource it to “society”. Let’s be engaged, conscious, conscientious and self-aware. The cycles can be broken, one parent/child at a time. Government won’t do it; church won’t do it. So if you’re going to procreate, make sure you are willing to put in the parenting work. All of it.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.Ephesians 6:4 NLT